pfMENTUM Records has been an American record label that has delighted Kathodik reviewers with its releases for many years. The label, directed by Jeff Kaiser, offered a series of releases dedicated to improvised music throughout its recording existence, always interesting and worthy of attention. With the pfMENTUM experience coming to an end after 20 years, I felt that an interview with Jeff Kaiser about the label’s history was necessary, and I made the effort. Jeff Kaiser talked about the origins, what pfMENTUM was for experimental music, the end of the adventure and his new life post-label, always and everywhere in the magmatic world of improvised music.
What are the origins of the pfMENTUM Records label? How did the idea come about? What were your inspirations? What models, if any, have you referred to?
I remember the origins vividly! It was 1995 and I had been running the Ventura New Music Festival and Concert Series for maybe five or six years by myself and it had become too much for me alone. I was going to call the festival quits, but my dear friend Keith McMullen volunteered to help. Keith is an amazing person, a clinical psychologist by education and trade, but with a voluminous knowledge of improvised music. At the time he was studying trumpet with me, but our lessons also included plenty of time where he was teaching me more about the international improvisation scene than I already knew. He was always handing me mixtapes with “you need to hear this” and my mind was constantly blown. I recently ran across those tapes when packing up two old filing cabinets and I was moved by the time and energy that Keith put into making them, as well as the extensive accompanying artwork! I feel like they should be in an art show somewhere. Keith had learned that the US Post Office by law at that time had to accept and deliver any shaped object with postage on it, so he started decorating odd objects, sticking a stamp on them, and dropping them in the mail. I’ve got quite a collection, from chunks of wood to little sculptures with stamps on them. So Keith and I, at that time, met up at a coffeehouse to plan the future of the Ventura New Music Festival/Concert Series, and decided to create a newsletter to go with the festival. Jacked up on many, many, many espressos—surrounded by newspapers, magazines, music dictionaries, and a Latin dictionary—we threw name possibilities back and forth, harvesting ideas from the written materials around us. I had a huge beard at that time and was intrigued by the Latin word for “chin” in that dictionary—“mentum”—as I had joked the beard made me look like I had a huge chin. We decided to create our own word. Since it was the early days of the internet, we wanted to be the only ones with our name, so we added the musical notation, “pf” (piano-forte, meaning soft-loud) at the front of “mentum.” Hence “Soft Loud the CHIN” was how we conceived of the name pfMENTUM. By the way, I have never told the origins of the name in a public interview, as far as I remember! We liked the name to be a mystery and to always appear formal in a corporate and bold sans-serif typeface, but the name was really just about us goofing around.
pfMENTUM was at first a newsletter we sent out freely to our audience members in the days when printing and mailing were affordable. Keith and I did interviews with musicians, I wrote (what I know see as very silly) articles on aesthetics, and other friends did reviews: all in support of the Ventura New Music Festival.
At that time, I had released a record on one independent label, and would later go on to release my double-quartet on the amazing NineWinds Records run by Vinny Golia. I met Vinny when I was a student in the mid/early 1980s and started working with him on various projects in the 90s. Vinny has always been, and remains, a great friend and a true model and inspiration. His label was the model for so many of us that wanted to start our own labels. He hilariously warned me (and others), saying, “Don’t do it! Don’t start a label!” (“A thankless job, you will lose money, spend hours of your day on other people’s music rather than your own, and end up storing tons of stuff in your garage or a storage unit.”) But in addition to all those warnings, he also told me how rewarding it was, how great it was to work with people he valued, building community and friendships from the music. As a friend, he just did not want me to go into it without being aware of the “other” side of the labor of love, i.e., the LABOR part. I went on to do it anyway. Vinny remains a dear friend and collaborator to this very day, someone I love dearly and appreciate so much. Releasing on his label made me want to know more about music that was being sent out, the manufacturing process, who was playing it, reviewing it, buying it, and more control over where the music was sent for reviews and radio play. His label inspired me to want to go even more into the social and structural layers surrounding the music. So in 1999 I started pfMENTUM Records, and eventually (fairly quickly) the newsletter—from which it got the name—disappeared and it became a record label only.
Originally, the label was a solo labor project with friends helping out occasionally in various ways. For example, the original packaging was recycled card stock, printed with soy ink and wrapped with hemp twine, and friends would help package them up. I was very pleased with the packaging, I still think it is gorgeous, and sending it out was like sending little presents/gifts that were special messengers of positivity and creativity into the world. But the custom packaging was not sustainable from a labor perspective, so we moved to regular CD packaging after around thirteen releases.
Other people came on to help run things throughout the years: Steuart Liebig was involved for a while and was a great help, overseeing projects from inception to production. Max Gualtieri stepped into that role also for several years, as did my friend Louis Lopez. Louis is an inspiring person to work with, positive, skillful, enthusiastic, and he brought a great energy to the label. Two very special contributors were Wayne Peet and Ted Killian. In the early days, I would do so much of the graphic art and recording/mixing/mastering. It got to where I could not do it all. My friend Ted Killian stepped in and started doing the art…and was responsible for so many of our now classic album covers and layouts. Wayne is also amazing. While working on composing/recording/mixing/mastering for major films and with major labels, he would always make time for our projects, and sonically anything he was involved with always surpassed all expectations. I would also like to mention the wonderful Emily Hay, who not only released fantastic music, but provided essential legal advice along the way and the occasional legal letter in support of our cause as well! It was a great, albeit shifting, team of talented, skilled, kind, and generous humans. I can only begin to name a few that helped. Wonderful people, it took many to make all this happen including the musicians themselves, photographers, graphic artists, recording/mixing/mastering engineers. I think by the time we ended there were well over 600 people that had their fingerprints on our releases. You can read more about them all at https://jeffkaiser.com/pfmentum/
Where was the label based?
The label originated in the little beach town where I lived: Ventura, California. Ventura is just north of Los Angeles, a great location for concerts as well, as we would get quality groups touring that had a free night between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The City of Ventura itself was very supportive of our work and we would frequently get what was considered huge audiences for this kind of music. The city government would fund the concert series by freely providing a beautiful concert space for us overlooking the city and the ocean, and we even received a few small grants from them to help the label advertise. The businesses in town would give discounts to our audiences, provide meals and beverages for guest artists, showcase smaller concerts in their bars and coffeehouses, and so much more. It was in many ways both idyllic and surprising! Idyllic in that it emerged organically in a beautiful setting, and surprising in that it was not a major metropolis, but a suburban beach town.
The label was housed there by the beach for the better part of ten years accompanied by the music festival and series. pfMENTUM then moved with me in 2007 to San Diego when I decided to return to school to earn a PhD in music in the Integrated Studies program at the University of California, San Diego. In 2016, when I landed a professorship at the University of Central Missouri, pfMENTUM moved with me to the small college town of Warrensburg, just east of Kansas City, Missouri. Most of our early artists were regionally located in the West Coast, mostly around Los Angeles and surrounding areas, but as we grew, musicians started to come from all over to release with us, and the regionality of the label became less of a focus.
How did you choose the releases?
We had a very specific algorithm we used to select music: we had to like the music—or, if not to our taste, at least find it compelling/intriguing in concept and execution—and the artists had to be nice people. We had worked with so many difficult people with the Ventura New Music Concert Series (it ran for 17 years!) that we refined our selection process to weed out those that were “difficult.” (We had a different term for them.) Our internal rallying call was, “Creative music and no @$$holes.” For the most part I think we were successful, with the occasional difficult person slipping through. Overall, the label represented music we wanted to hear, featuring people we wanted to spend time with, that the artists brought to us. We never sought out specific releases as traditional labels’ A&R would: we viewed our work as an engagement of the collective. We would, however, encourage people when we were approached or heard compelling music.
Why was it mostly cds releases?
We released CDs, vinyl, DVDs, and all digital as well. Even to the end, our audience mostly preferred CDs. This would shock certain people, in particular musicians. We would sell CDs around the world, up to the very end of closing shop in 2022. Strangely, digital only releases did not move as much as physical products. I would get teased by some musicians for releasing CDs with the onset of Bandcamp et al. Musicians would mock, yet the audience still wanted physical objects! And even to the end, artists that would send out CDs would get more radio play and more reviews than those that only sent out digital files. I think people still liked connecting the feeling associated with the music—as well as the memories of live performances, interactions with artists, et cetera— to the physical objects (CDs, LPs, et cetera). On a lesser note, they also serve as visual cues on a shelf to trigger what you might like to listen to.
What did/do you think about co-productions between record labels? Did/Do you think it was/is a viable option for your label?
Co-productions are good. We did several with NineWinds, and they were quite successful.
How did/do you see the national and international improvisational music scene?
Boundless, timeless, ever-growing, remarkable, mind-blowing…I could keep going with the glowing adjectives. The creativity of humans, wow, never ceasing in its ability to surprise with awesomeness. From China to Estonia and everywhere in between, there are amazing and creative people doing sonically interesting things involving improvisation. I have been fortunate to travel and see so much in person, but the expansiveness of the internet brings them all to my studio, my office, my phone, and I love that!
Why did you close the record label after over 20 years?
The labor (i.e. time) investment had become too much combined with the expense of maintaining infrastructure. Also, trying to remain positive with the required time outlay for the label became too much when combined with the large responsibilities of my “day job” as a professor that paid all my bills. What Vinny warned me about when starting the label was real. The label was expensive and never turned a profit, a true labor of love: and it was costing me a lot of money and time to run. In the end, it was the combination of time, money, and energy expenditures that led to the demise of pfMENTUM. In 2016 I became a professor at a great university, my first full-time salaried job since 1992! It sometimes still surprises me that previous to this position I was able to cobble together a living between playing music, studio work from playing trumpet to recording/mixing/mastering, teaching private music lessons, the occasional arts grant, graphic arts, and whatever else I could do to make money. As a professor, my previous free and unscheduled time became full, so I had to take time from my own creative practice to run the label. This was hard. And then we had a few challenging releases that normally I would power through, but with free time being the most valuable thing to me and with the hours of the new job, I could not handle the challenges, so I had to let go. It was wearing me out psychologically and taking away time from making my own music. It was time to let go, the resentment was starting to build, and I did not want to be old and resentful: I wanted the positive memories to outweigh any possible negative futures. It was a very heartbreaking decision because pfMENTUM was tied with my identity as a musician, and the development of my own art. The label introduced me to collaborators, new music, and gave me a connection to the broader musical world. Letting it go was so incredibly hard. But when I did, it felt right.
There were also increasing costs in other areas: while manufacturing was getting more and more reasonable, tariffs and international shipping fees tripled (or more) recently and this started to affect the ability to get physical products out there. Digital products conceptually seemed like a good option, but they would get lost in the sea of digital-only releases from everyone everywhere. Every time I sent out a CD outside of the US I would get a new critic or radio station that would tell me to stop, they could no longer afford the tariff for all the CDs being sent from all the different labels. It all added up, it became time to move on to another project.
My current project, since organizing collective activities seems to be in my DNA, is MOXsonic, a festival I co-founded and direct here at my University that prominently features technology-based improvisation, check it out at https://moxsonic.org/
What is the future of record labels as you see it?
I see small record labels as a great focal point for audience development and distribution of music to that audience. Each one has the potential to develop different audiences based on the details of the music, outreach method, region (still attractive even in the digital age), who is reviewing, what stations/podcasts are playing, et cetera. Musicians working together collectively to expand audiences with specific sonic interests still seems a great method. And then collaborating between labels gets even better through shared audiences.
We have of course seen such huge changes in the way big/major labels operate in the last decade. Where in the past they focused on musical products and the traditional rights that went with those products, they now focus on 360 contracts. We cannot use major labels for models in the creative music world, unless there is independent money behind it. For small labels, it will need to continue to be a labor of love as always (i.e., not profit driven). The labels need to be places where community is built, collaborations created, and the focus is on the music, I believe that is one of the only sustainable models to support creative music. Another option is for everybody to start their own label and only release their own music. This sort of silo building has an attraction for some, as you become solely responsible for everything. But I believe this also represents challenges that are better faced by a community of people: audience development, labor, distribution, and *not* being solely responsible for everything(!) Shared burdens are lighter.
Could you tell us something about some of your future projects?
I recently did a live concert with full choir, electronic processing, and improvisors (The Choir Boys with Choir). I am currently working on one for a marching band with live electronic processing, spatialization, and improvisors (KaiBorg with Marching Band). This is part of the joy of my university professorship, access to resources of musicians and ensembles!
Currently, I am also working on more and more solo projects, with the future “Corpseboy” release occupying a lot of my energy. I did one release under that name a long time ago, but the new one will be totally different…featuring more metal-oriented music as well as improvisation, probability-based electronics, trumpet, other horns, percussion, voice, and more. This project has been in development for years now, I hope to finish it soon and find a good label to release it.
In addition to my musical projects, I also develop free software using the Max visual programming environment from Cycling ’74. Creative software development is similar to creative music…not a large user-base, but a committed one! And the joy of developing software is, for me, similar to the joy of making music. And I love sharing software as much as sharing music. Many of the processing modules I use for my performances are available either as Max patchers or Max for Live plugins that run in Ableton Live. In addition, I have a slew of VST plugins I will be releasing soon. I have a small collection of free or “pay-what-you-want” software available for download at https://jeffkaiser.com/. Some of these have been used not only in my own performances, but in compositions I have written for clarinetist Elisabeth Stimpert (a great friend and regular collaborator, horn player Gabriel Trottier, singer Jake Sentgeorge, and pianist Albert Kim, among others).
Writing projects include a new book that is in progress on people who use loops in their music. This is being co-authored with my friend—and musical collaborator as well—Gregory Taylor. The book is tentatively titled ‘Loopers: Aesthetics, Technologies, and Creative Practitioners’ and will include (as the title suggests) an exploration of the aesthetics of repetition in music; ethnographic information from people that use loopers or repetition in a wide variety of sonic practices, including discussing their ideas/conceptions about the role of technology in their art, and; software examples of different types of loopers used in musical performance and production. For more information, or if you would like to contribute your ideas as we are looking for interviewees (!) check out https://jeffkaiser.com/scholarship/loopers-aesthetics-technologies-and-creative-practitioners/
In addition to recordings, software, and writing, I hope to do more and more on YouTube as I love the visual aspect of the performance combined with the ability to have decent audio quality. Please feel free to check it out at https://www.youtube.com/jeffkaiser and please subscribe! 🙂
Link: Jeff Kaiser Home Page